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CXOs in Sports: Interview with Mukul Choudhari, Director - Academy, Manchester United Soccer Schools

  • CXOs in Sports: Interview with Mukul Choudhari, Director - Academy, Manchester United Soccer Schools
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Modified 26 Jul 2014, 10:56 IST
Mukul Choudhari, Director - Academy, Manchester United Soccer Schools

Sportskeeda brings another exciting series of interviews – CXOs in Sports, where we speak to eminent and prominent personalities, talking about their sporting interests and ideas for development of sports in general and of their sports work/interest in particular.

Mukul Chaudhari was the Dirctor- Academy of the Manchester United Soccer Schools initiative in India. Previous to that, he was the general manager of Mumbai FC. Currently, he is the President of Mumbai Tigers Football Club. We caught up with him recently and had a chat about his interests in football and his opinion on the future of sports in India.

1) How and when did you start following sports?

I have been following sports since school days, and played table-tennis, football and cricket at school and college level but never pursued professionally.

Since school, like most boys, I idolized people that displayed exceptional physical sporting prowess during that stretch. Cricket and cricketers were no. 1 probably due to the level of exposure it received in the media and captured everyone’s imagination. Also winning the World Cup helped catapult its popularity a lot. Cricket was followed by hockey and tennis (because of Wimbledon and Vijay Amritraj).

It was in my late teens that I started appreciating the finer nuances of these sports and became a keen observer of the more intelligent aspects of these games and their decision making processes that start way before the actual game is played.

2) Tell us about how Manchester United Soccer School functions and how was the entire set up planned?

Manchester United Soccer Schools (MUSS) was an initiative undertaken by WIFA (Western India Football Association), among others, to promote a world class football program in India. The curriculum was sophisticated and the approach to player learning and development was extremely scientific and professional, a near replica of the MUFC academy, if you will.

The set up was impressive, to say the least, with world class infrastructure and international coaches laying the foundation of perhaps the best grassroots development center in the country. Add to that, interactions with Manchester United's legendary players like Gary Neville, Dennis Irwin etc. was something unheard of and motivated young aspirants like never before.

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I think it was the first time I got to witness both skeptical parents and ambitious kids grasp the massive potential of the sport in our country on one platform.

Initially we implemented the course and schedules as is from the ones followed in the UK, but the team adapted our delivery to the local scenario quickly. We have achieved in keeping the best aspects from that venture in our current set-up i.e. Indian Football School

3) You wrapped up functions in India last year, how was the experience of training in India.

The experience was highly motivating for everyone concerned. MUSS managed to train over 1500 players in the span of 2 years. We were encouraged by popular demand to reach out beyond Mumbai and delivered our courses repeatedly in Navi Mumbai, Pune and New Delhi with great success.

4) What sports do you follow keenly apart from football?

Cricket and Tennis have been pretty much ingrained since childhood like football is now in the younger generations. More recently, I’ve taken an interest in Basketball and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). Both have great potential and entertainment value for marketer and audiences alike.

5) Your favourite sportsperson growing up, and why?

Diego Maradona – For his magical 1986 World Cup performance was my first engagement with football in my growing years as a spectator

Sachin Tendulkar – From being a teenage sensation to a record breaking master, he has been an example for more than a few generations of Indians of excellence, professionalism and the potential to dream bigger than your own limitations

Ronaldinho Gaucho – One of the greatest players in the last few decades. He was an undeniable wizard who amazed audiences with his skills. A treat to see watch him play.

Messi – My current favourite footballer. His talent is sometimes truly out of this world.

6) How has football impacted your life? Tell us that one aspect of it that has always attracted you

Since my professional engagement with Indian football, I have learnt to be ready for any adversity. It has altered my thought process on preparation. It has taught me a great deal about moving on and focusing on the final objective despite losses or victories. I’ve learnt to enjoy the thrill and sense of achievement after a comeback. It has kept me hungry for larger, bigger goals.

7) What has been your favorite sporting moment? Describe it to us. (Do share any anecdote that comes to your mind)

This came when I was working with Mumbai FC. Mumbai FC’s victory in our debut I-league match beating Mohun Bagan 2-1 in Kolkata in front of their massive turnout of supporters was an amazing moment. That was followed by a dream run of victories against East Bengal (also away) and the local derby against Mahindra United at home. Consequently, we were being hailed as ‘Giant Killers’ in the media and earning respect from the bigger clubs was fantastic for the team as well as the grassroots development and marketing activities we were undertaking at the time.

This span of 2 weeks was pretty sensational for a new football club that many had written off as relegation contenders in the top flight of Indian football. It boosted the talent hunt we conducted for our youth teams which went on to be the biggest turnout in India (over 10000 players) and was recognized by the Limca Book of Records.”

This happened during our opening match against Mohun Bagan. Our driver happened to be a strong Mohum Bagan fan and supporter, and the day before the match he shared the greatness of football and how since childhood he had been following the rich history of the club. I admired that man and instantly said someday we hope to have fans like you following Mumbai FC.

On the day of the match while he was driving us to the stadium, he was consoling me that its actually unfortunate that we have to play our first match against Mohun Bagan, a really strong team. He kept giving me tips to save the club from embarrassment saying we should ideally focus on defense and try to concede less goals possibly, as it will affect later in the league table ranking. All through I was listening to him quietly, and I had already started respecting and admiring him as a fan.

Mumbai FC defeated Mohun Bagan 2-1. It was a clean win with no scope for complains. I realized that our driver was completely silent after the loss that had deflated his ego. As we got closer to my hotel, I said to him ‘we played well today’ and I am sorry, and his acknowledgement was ‘Aapka Luck accha Tha’. He then went on to say, ‘Thik hai hum Haar gaya par App abhi East Bengal ko bhi harana Chahiye, unko Jeetne mat do’. I was stunned by this patriotic Bagan fan, as he only managed to gain more of my respect everytime he expressed himself. I laughed back saying ‘Jaroor par luck accha hona chahiye’. I told him I am leaving for Mumbai and may not attend the match and thanked him for his good wishes for our East Bengal Match.

Three days later we had our match with East Bengal and was following it over sms and internet sitting back in Mumbai. To our delight, we defeated them on their home turf and were all excited and celebrating our win back in the Mumbai office. To my surprise I got a call from the driver, the Mohun Bagan fan who congratulated me on the win and “thanked me” for beating East Bengal.

This entire episode has had a deep impact on me and my relationship with Indian football that day onwards.

8) How do you think we can promote the growth of sports in India, and how soon do you think Football will be able to reach an acceptance level similar to that of Cricket?

Football has already reached the acceptance level you speak of. It’s neither a new sport for Indians nor is it a trend like 8 ball pool was. It has grown organically over decades. One only has to look around to see the sheer numbers of fan following and merchandizing to gauge that. The willingness to pay to play on better artificial turf by younger working professionals and teenagers alike also stands as testament. It’s no wonder such centers are cropping up everywhere in metros and doing good business.

If there wasn’t already a large market ready to be tapped, you wouldn’t see investments such as ISL, MUSS etc. emerging. There is little need to promote it like basketball or MMA. This has come about because the sport already has everything going for it: it’s fast paced, requires minimum equipment, can be played on multiple surfaces and weather conditions and cuts across economic classes.

As for growth, I believe the governing bodies and their partners have been taking the right steps. Simultaneously, activities like certification courses at the state level for football coaches sets the standard for improving the quality of players developed at the grassroots in schools and colleges that will supply better talent to clubs and state teams. This has already been undertaken by the likes of WIFA in India.

Parents are beginning to encourage and invest in their child’s talent because they now see the myriad of career opportunities in football. They recognize now that there is a market for football talent nationally and internationally thanks majorly to the exposure from EPL, La Liga etc.

9) What is necessary to build a sporting culture in India in the future?

The engagement with sports should start at an early age. There is a lot that needs to be done at the school level where it’s the most critical to have qualified coaches who can get the fundamentals right for aspiring players. Grassroots are the most critical area where we need to focus. 

We have relatively good coaches who train players at the senior level but its little too late to focus on fundamentals when you have passed the age of 16, as you cannot easily ‘unlearn’ if you have not been trained right, thus minimizing one’s chance to play at the higher level going forward.

The approach should be holistic. It should include the training on field, awareness about the right diet, rest, strength and conditioning. All this is very critical to the development of a good athlete. I believe the results itself will motivate and drive the sporting culture further.

10) A message for our readers.

We can either choose to be critics and keep complaining that we may take ages to bring sports to the level it is at in the developed countries or we can do something about it. Players should pursue sports more seriously, combine discipline with a scientific understanding for better performance.

Parents should definitely put pressure on schools to encourage sports activities. They should insist that schools provide and facilitate specialized training.

I was trained by my PE teacher in football, who also doubled up as a coach. When I look back today and reflect, I understand that he had no knowledge of the game but as school kids, we followed him blindly.

I am sure we can make a difference in our own way by standing up for sports where ever we are if we want the change to happen.

Published 26 Jul 2014, 03:17 IST
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